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Back in Florida, Trump rallies in Ocala with 18 days to go

President Trump and his surrogates have blanketed Florida in recent days, a key state in his reelection fight.

OCALA — The crowd had been gathered for hours Friday by the time Air Force One, it’s white and baby blue body reflecting bright, cloud-diffused sunlight from above, landed at Ocala International Airport.

The crowd was already warmed up — by speakers like Trump ally U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz and by the stifling heat radiating off the tarmac that sent several people on stretchers to medical aid.

Then the Boeing 757 variant, one of the Air Force’s smaller presidential ferries for access to shorter airstrips, taxied right up to the stage. The Village People’s 1978 hit Macho Man blared from the speakers. And as the president descended, he was greeted by thunderous applause.

Related: Trump jokes he’ll fire DeSantis if he loses Florida. ‘I’ll find a way.’

What ensued was a rambling, chaotic, fiery, partially scripted 90-minute screed touching on his favorite topics: the media and how unfair it is to him, the border wall, drug prices, socialism, China, the pandemic, the economy, and the bias of tech companies. It was all bookended by a radio-ready playlist of classic rock. In short, a classic Trump campaign rally.

The appearance was Trump’s third in Florida this week, after holding an Oct. 12 rally in Sanford and Thursday night’s televised town hall interview in Miami. It’s part of his campaign’s Sunshine State blitz with 18 days left in the election, as votes are already being cast and Democratic nominee Joe Biden leading in several national polls.

Trump attacked the media, as usual, saying reporters wouldn’t accurately convey the size of the crowd (the Ocala Star-Banner estimated it was about 5,000 people). There were many red hats and few masks.

Related: Jill Biden brings message of unity to St. Petersburg at drive-in rally

The president then criticized the previous night’s dueling town hall events. His, aired by NBC, was scheduled after he dropped out of the second of three presidential debates once it became a virtual event following his coronavirus diagnosis. It was programmed against an event Biden held in Philadelphia on ABC.

The two town halls were contrasts in style and, Trump said, in treatment. Biden’s event was a sedate policy discussion with George Stephanopoulos. Trump’s town hall was a tough interview with NBC News' Savannah Guthrie, which touched on the pandemic, white supremacy, conspiracy theories and the president’s taxes.

“Joe Biden is a disaster, let’s face it," the president said. "You see last night? Did you see the easy questions? Did you watch that whole deal? And you saw what I got last night, right?”

President Donald Trump acknowledges supporters after speaking during a campaign rally at Ocala International Airport on Friday. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | AP ]

Trump attacked the integrity of the former vice president and his family, invoking a recent and unsubstantiated controversy surrounding son Hunter Biden. The crowd chanted “lock him up," reminiscent of the chants for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

“Joe Biden is a corrupt politician, and he has been for a long time, and the Biden family is a criminal enterprise. And you know it," Trump said. "In fact, they sort of make ‘Crooked’ Hillary Clinton look like amateur hour.”

Trump touted the health of the economy before the pandemic took its toll. He characterized the election as being an economic choice between “a Trump recovery and Biden depression.”

“Biden’s plan will crush America," the president said. "My plan will crush the virus.”

Related: Trump returns to Florida’s campaign trail: ‘I feel so powerful’

The United States had lost 218,448 lives to COVID-19 as of late Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University. There were 16,030 deaths in Florida as of Friday, according to state data.

The Biden campaign released a statement Friday head of the president’s event. It pointed to the number of people who have died in Florida, the state’s shrunken tourism industry and high unemployment.

“As President, I’ll work with the scientists to get COVID-19 in check," Biden said in the statement.

Before the Ocala rally, Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis held one in Fort Myers earlier Friday.

Trump has kicked his public campaign schedule into high gear since he recovered from COVID-19, which sidelined him for 10 days. During that time, his inner circle, including Vice President Mike Pence and his children, were enlisted to traverse Florida and campaign for Trump in a crucial state. Pence visited The Villages last week, while Donald Trump Jr. rallied with congressional candidate Anna Paulina Luna in Clearwater on Friday, his second visit to the Tampa Bay area in a week.

Related: Supporters enjoy Trump Jr.'s stand-up comedy style in Pinellas rally

Trump promised victory come Election Day, “a ‘red wave’ the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” He reminded the crowd that early voting in Florida begins on Monday and implored them to deliver him the key swing state. He also addressed DeSantis, who introduced the president.

“Hey Ron, are we going to win this state, please?" Trump asked, before turning back to the crowd. "You know if we don’t win it, I’m blaming the governor. I’ll fire him somehow. I’m going to fire him. I will find a way.”

Toward the end of his Ocala speech, Trump looked at the sun, diving toward Air Force One en route to the horizon.

“Isn’t that a beautiful sight?" he asked. “I hate to tell you, but I have the exact same plane at home.”

Minutes later, the president ripped the National Basketball Association, saying it had disrespected the American Flag. Then Trump got back on-board Air Force One and flew to another rally in Macon, Ga.

Supporters of President Donald Trump listen as he speaks during a campaign rally at Ocala International Airport on Friday. [ EVAN VUCCI | AP ]

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

VOTER GUIDE IS COMING SOON: The Tampa Bay Times will publish a special election section Sunday, Oct. 18, with information on local races. You can also access our Know Your Candidates guide at tampabay.com/voterguide.

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